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But the great fact was the land itself, which seemed to overwhelm the little beginnings of human society that struggled in its sombre wastes. It was from facing this vast hardness that the boy’s mouth had become so bitter; because he felt that men were too weak to make any mark here.
―Willa Cather, O Pioneers!

To talk about the Rockies, let’s talk about the Astros.

In June 1969, at the close of the Astros’ first calendar decade as a baseball franchise, a sportswriter wrote a column with this headline: “Expansion Astros Gain Maturity.” Houston finished the year 81-81, their first season without a losing record.

In June 1979, at the close of the Astros’ second decade, the Associated Press wrote a column with this headline: “Expansion Astros Charge In Front Of Longtime N.L. Powers.” Those Astros would falter in September but finish in second place—their highest finish ever—with 89 wins, a new franchise best.

In the 1980s, they made the playoffs for the first time. In the 1990s, they won 52% of their games, which is still their winningest decade as a franchise. In the 2000s, they made the World Series for the first time. In the 2010s, they won it for the first time. In 2022, of course, they won it again, behind one of the half-dozen best pitching staffs in American League history.

These are the questions: When, precisely, did Houston stop being an expansion team? And when will the Rockies?


In 1987, Colorado Senator Tim Wirth organized a congressional task force to encourage MLB to add new teams. The implied threat was that if the league wouldn’t expand, it would face a Senatorial challenge to its anti-trust exemption. “For years, it has been argued that expansion will not take place until major-league baseball is forced into it,” a wire report explained. Wirth and his state ended up with their team, as did Florida Senator Connie Mack III, who had been another active lobbyist for expansion.

In the 30 years since, neither the Rockies or the Marlins have won a division title (though the Marlins have won two World Series as Wild Card entries). Neither team has won more than 92 games in a season. Both teams are, in their history, hundreds of games under .500: 374 games below square for Miami, 294 for Colorado.

An underrated aspect of modern baseball is how long the stink of expansion takes to wear off. To get back to the Astros: On September 12 last year, behind a grand slam by Alex Bregman, the Astros beat the Angels 12-4. That moved Houston’s all-time record to 4,815-4,814. They were, finally, over .500.

Which is mildly interesting, but what’s more interesting is that they’re the only expansion team over .500. Fourteen teams, all extant for at least 26 seasons and as long as 62 seasons, and every single one of them had been a historical loser until September 12, 2022.

I first heard that fun fact in 2011, when Chris Jaffe wrote about it for The Hardball Times. Expansion teams lose a lot early on, go into win-debt and take a long time to win enough games to get back to even, fine. But in the 12 seasons since Jaffe’s article, the 14 non-original teams are collectively 522 games under .500. These expansion teams are all ancient by now. Four of them pre-date Ringo Starr joining the Beatles and James Bond on the big screen and Roger Angell writing about ball. How could they still be disadvantaged?

Now, spread among 14 teams over a dozen seasons, 522 games is not a huge deficit. On average, expansion teams since the Jaffe article have won about 79.5 games per season, while original teams have won about 82.3—much less than the effect of home-field advantage, for example.

But those extra few wins seem to make a big difference on the margins. Since 1998, expansion teams have represented 47% of the league’s teams. During that time, non-expansion teams have averaged twice as many playoff appearances as expansion teams, winning 71% of division titles and 18 of the 25 World Series.


But being an expansion team is not one experience, it’s two.

We can see this when we look at the 14 expansion teams’ performance by age (i.e. in their first year, second year, third year). When big-league teams are one year old, they’ve collectively won about 38% of their games. At 62 years old, they’ve collectively won 44% of games—but that’s just the 2022 Angels and the 2022 Rangers (who were born in 1961 as the second Washington Senators), so it’s not all that definitive.

​In five-year blocks, we can see the progression a bit more convincingly:

Years W-L%
1–5 .423
6–10 .468
11–20 .495
21–30 .494
31–40 .478
41–62 .498


Years W-L%
1–7 .435
8–62 .492

The bulk of the win debt comes early, and that phase lasts for close to a decade, as non-incumbent teams struggle under a number of structural disadvantages. They lack farm depth built up over several years, they often inherit uninviting multi-use stadiums, they lose a lot of games—and are thus less appealing to free agents—and they have yet to cultivate durable, generational fanbases. That’s the first phase of being a franchise team.

After seven to 10 years, the gap between old teams and “new” teams shrinks down to a very small difference—but, crucially, still a difference. This tells us something else: There are persistent disadvantages these franchises face long, long, long, long, long after the first waves of personnel have turned over. The disadvantage typically comes down to one of two geographical quandaries: 1) There’s some reason big-league baseball hadn’t been played (or hadn’t stuck) in that city before, or 2) There was already a baseball team playing there.

So, for example, Seattle has to travel farther than everybody else—a small disadvantage that persists. Toronto has the inconvenience of being in a different country than everybody else. Washington has the not-actually-local locals problem. Milwaukee and Kansas City have small metro areas that had previously been abandoned by other teams. And almost every expansion team has, for a while, the mile-wide, inch-deep problem with their fans: Nobody who controls a credit card grew up with the team. There’s no mythology to market around. It takes 20 years before even a marginal old-timers game can be staged.

Many of these disadvantages shrink over time. Houston’s first park (built atop an oily swamp) had a legendary mosquito problem, but eventually they replaced the swamp stadium and the mosquitos became just a part of the lore. The Diamondbacks were born in a small market, but Metro Phoenix’s population has nearly doubled since 1997, and the Diamondbacks have moved from small market to medium-big without having to pack. Over their first 45 seasons, the Rangers had cumulative winning records in April and May and June but losing records through the brutally hot September and August and (especially) July months, a seemingly unsolvable climate problem. Then they finally built a dome.

So the trajectory of an expansion team is this: First, you’re an “expansion team” in the sense that the league charges you a ton of money up front to field a team that has very few good players and no depth and you have to fight hard for every fan and the stadium is primarily used for rodeos or whatever. Then, the years pass, you build your farm system, you replace your swamp park, you figure out what you’re doing—and then you’re an “expansion team” in the sense that you have to play in a city that was the 15th– or 20th– or 25th-best option for placing a baseball team. This disadvantage shrinks until it’s only a trickle, you hope.

The Mets and Angels—playing in the market shadow of the most popular and valuable franchises in the sport—are still expansion teams, but only faintly. The Astros and Rangers (née Senators) probably aren’t.


The Rockies are obviously way past the phase of expansion in which David Nied was their Opening Day starter, they had two fewer minor-league affiliates than anybody else and every one of those affiliates had a losing record. But they’re still stuck in a place where winning baseball seems close to untenable. Thanks to the altitude in Denver, the club starts every year with disadvantages, which can be summed up like this:

  • It’s hard to develop young pitching in such a hostile environment;
  • It’s hard to attract established pitchers to such a hostile environment;
  • The cumulative effect of this hostile environment means Colorado needs more pitchers than the average team, because their pitchers throw more high-stress pitches and in a more physically depleting environment;
  • The hangover effect of altitude wrecks Colorado hitters on the road, so that the offense becomes basically hopeless when it leaves its home park. The Rockies have been an above-average road offense… once. In 1997.

A further complication: Altitude has not, to understate things, been neutralized. While the first few years of the humidor (in the mid-aughts) were somewhat successful at bringing the Rockies’ home/road splits back to earth, that hasn’t been the case lately. In 2022, their tOPS+ at home—which measures one split against the non-split numbers—was 125, the 11th-highest in the franchise’s 30 seasons.

If playing in an extreme ballpark is the Rockies’ main disadvantage, this year’s rule changes seem designed to make things worse. Limiting pickoff attempts and expanding the size of the bases will make baserunners more dangerous; Rockies pitchers regularly face the most batters with runners on base. (They’re fourth in the NL in pickoff attempts since 2017.) Imposing pitch clocks will force pitchers to work more quickly; pitchers at altitude are already prone to fatigue because of the thin air. (Rockies pitchers have the third-slowest pace among NL pitchers since 2010.) Banning the shift will make balls put in play more productive; the Rockies’ pitchers have the NL’s lowest strikeout rate in three of the past four seasons, and thus typically allow the most balls in play.


On the other hand, the Rockies shifted less than any team in baseball last year, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing—there are cases to be made for and against any strategy. But when an approach is apparently so effective that the league bans it, it’s probably not the place to be counterintuitive.

This is not a franchise that looks poised to discover any secret formulas. Their analytics department was depleted to one person after the pandemic season, according to The Athletic’s Nick Groke, and the Research & Development director they recruited in late 2021 lasted only five months in the job. (It took five more months to replace him with an in-house promotion.) I’m willing to believe Bud Black is great at a thousand managerial things. But he’s 15 years into his career, he’s never finished first and he’s won one postseason game. Change won’t start internally.

It’s always been tempting to think that the Rockies’ way out of this phase of expansion would be finding the One Neat Trick, and at this point we’ve seen the franchise try about 30 neat tricks that failed. Black is the personification of the latest gambit, which we might call Strength In Stability. The Rockies’ nine projected starting position players and top five starting pitchers this year will be playing, on average, their fifth season with the club. (In the NL West, only the Dodgers can compare.) And extensions, not acquisitions, have been the front office’s priority. Since the end of the 2021 season, the Rockies have agreed to long extensions with Antonio Senzatela, which will keep him in purple through his 10th big-league season; Kyle Freeland, through his 10th; and Ryan McMahon, through his 11th. They also extended Elias Díaz, a 31-year-old catcher with 3.9 career WARP, for three years; in July they extended their 37-year-old closer, Daniel Bard, for two years. There’s a logic here: If the terrain is brutal and you find a crop that won’t immediately wilt, you’ll keep trying that crop. But not wilting isn’t the same as flourishing, and the Rockies have merely locked in the league’s most stable 70-some-win team.

In 2017, when the Rockies were still trying the High-Spin Relievers neat trick and the Stockpile Pitching Prospects neat trick and Black was their brand-new manager, Sports Illustrated’s Albert Chen went to Colorado to talk to the people who’d tried to win there. He came away with a fatalistic conclusion: “This much is clear: If there’s a solution to the greatest puzzle in baseball, the Rockies now understand, it’s simply being better—better at drafting players, better at developing them; better at finding cheap, undervalued pitchers; better at staying strong and healthy.”

But that’s not a strategy, it’s a tautology. Everybody is trying to do that. The Rockies might do it, and if they do, you probably won’t even notice. Being better probably gets them to 83 wins in a good year. To 92 in the best one.

—Sam Miller is a former Editor-in-Chief of Baseball Prospectus
and current author of the Pebble Hunting substack

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2,377 days since the last Sam Miller BP Post.

One for each of Jake Peavy's career innings pitched.
I really like the current lineup of writers here. That said, it's still a treat to have an alum like Sam pop in for a visit.
alex chidester
his substack is, predictably, brilliant.
Shaun P.
Very much agree! It was also a treat to open the annual, scan the list of writers and contributers, and see Sam's name.
KC Shankland
Pour one out for the Royals, who went above .500 as a franchise in 1977 on the way to winning 6 division, 2 league and 1 world championship from 76 to 1985.

The Baird/Muser era was bad for many reasons, the nadir of which may have been 2002 when the Royals had their first 100 loss season, and went back below .500...